All the necessary elements - voices, orchestra, sets, and intelligent stage direction - to make for a fully satisfying several hours of opera theatre were present during the matinee performance of Verdi's Rigoletto , presented in Winston-Salem's Stevens Center on October 6 by the Piedmont Opera Theatre. Before the performance, Peter Kairoff, POT board member and music professor at nearby Wake Forest University, gave an unusually perceptive overview of the opera and Verdi. The massive sets were designed by Sarah J. Conly and J. Michael Deegan. They were created for the Atlanta Opera and made available through the Utah Symphony and Opera. Recalling his student days in Italy, Kairoff said the sets used architectural motifs from the original palace of the Duke of Mantua. Costumes, coordinated by Kathryn E. Grillo, seemed plausible, and the lighting, by Norman Coates, was effective throughout. Many small and telling stage details added up to reveal the able hand of Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer. Members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, under the stylish leadership of Jerome Shannon, more than met Verdi's important instrumental demands. Instead of the standard four-act arrangement of the opera, this production combined the first two acts as two scenes separated by about ten minutes while the set was jockeyed from the Court of Mantua to Rigoletto's house and the adjoining street.
The courtiers, presumably N.C. School of the Arts students, made a good ensemble, vocally and dramatically. The crass Animal House atmosphere of the Court was effectively conveyed, for they were a crude pack of lechers, reflecting the dissolute and promiscuous lifestyle of their Duke. Budden, in The Operas of Verdi , reminds us that the storm sequence in Act III depicts "moaning wind, portrayed with startling novelty by a wordless chorus"; here, the ensemble was solid. This was just one of many innovations and deft details revealed in this production of the first of Verdi's nearly through-composed early operas.
Tenor Todd Geer, as the Duke, was far more than adequate, both vocally and dramatically. "Questa o quella" was delivered with a well-supported voice, even throughout its range and with good ringing high notes at the end. There seemed to be a little strain in the third stanza, but no blemishes caught attention thereafter. The aria "La donna è mobile," the tune of which occurs from time to time in the opera, also went very well. Most telling was Geer's "Ella mi fu rapita!...Parmi veder" at the opening of Act II. In this scena and double aria, Geer seemed completely sincere in his despair at the mysterious disappearance of Gilda, the cloistered girl that he, in the guise of the poor student Gualtier Maldè, had been trying to seduce. With the arrival of his pack of courtiers and the kidnapped Gilda, his true nature was revealed as he relished entering the room in which she was being held against her will. Her rape occurred offstage.
Lucy Tucker Yates was perfect as Gilda, Rigoletto's carefully secluded daughter. Her voice was lovely, with excellent control of vibrato and pitch, and she was a superb singing actress, too, when depicting the naïve innocence of a teenage first love (in the scena where she related to Giovanna her growing interest in a young man sighted in church), in her meeting with "Maldè," and in her rhapsodic "Caro nome." Act III, scene 1, brought disillusionment ("Infelice cor tradito"), and scene 2 ended with tragic self-sacrifice ("Perdona tu"). Her high notes were fully in place in, for example, the climax of her duet with Geer, the passionate "Addio" of the couple. The Asheboro native will be familiar to Triangle and Triad opera lovers from two recent Fletcher Opera Institute presentations; she was Ann Trulove in Stravinsky's Rake's Progress and the title character in Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda . This year she was selected by Placido Domingo and Franco Zefferelli to make her Italian debut as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata . Gian Carlo Menotti also chose her to sing the role of Monica in The Medium , in which she was joined by fellow UNC-Chapel Hill alumna, mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, as Mme. Flora.
Award-winning Chinese baritone Ping Yu was a firm-voiced and sympathetic Rigoletto. Early in Act I his voice was sometimes lost in the ensemble, but it was well projected in most of the opera. His acting was good, and his anguish over his daughter in Act II was especially moving. An inspired touch of direction occurred near the end of this Act, after Gilda had revealed her shame: as Yu delivered his aside that he had prayed that his daughter might have risen as far as he had fallen, Gilda (who knew nothing of her father's work) suddenly saw the Jester's doll beneath his chair and slowly realized what her father did. Yu projected all of Rigoletto's rage and pathos.
Bass Kevin Bell was the resonant Sparafucile, an assassin with a code of ethics. His exit on a long-held low note, in the second scene of Act I, was impressive. The divided cellos and basses that added an ominous undertone to this whole scene were likewise excellent. Charlotte Paulsen, who sang the role of Sparafucile's voluptuous sister Maddelena, was listed as a mezzo-soprano, but her deep, rich tone verged upon a true contralto. (Perhaps an obsession with security led the Duke to make several close-at-hand searches of her in Act III?) Bass Branch Fields was effective in his critical appearances as Monterne, singer of the "La maledizione," the father's curse that haunts the opera. Briefer roles were taken by baritone Krassen Karagioziv (Marullo), baritone Jason McKinney (Count Ceprano), soprano Karen Svites (Countess Ceprano), and soprano Emily Amber Newton (Giovanna, Gilda's bribable nurse).
Of all the facilities in the Triangle and Triad in which I have heard opera performed, the Stevens Center is the finest. Both Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium and Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium are too cavernous for normal opera voices to project without serious strain or amplification (which I abhor). Durham's Carolina Theatre has horrible acoustics. Fletcher Opera House is suited only for smaller operas such as those by Mozart. The acoustics in Stevens Center are very good, and the space is just right for conventionally sized and/or young opera voices. With its high and steeply raked balcony, there really isn't a bad seat in the house.